Sober and Orderly? A Short History of Policing Public Drunkenness in New South Wales

Presented by Dr Matt Allen,

Lecturer in History and Criminology, University of New England

2:00 Tuesday 6th October 2015

Paul Barratt Lecture Theatre, Psychology Building S06, UNE

Synopsis: 1810-1850. Image - Samuel Gill, 'Spirits in Bond', Melbourne: c. 1865. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

For most of the history of New South Wales, drunkenness was the leading cause of arrest, typically comprising over 40% of all charges brought before a magistrate.  This predominance does not simply reflect a society with serious alcohol problems.  Rather, the offence of drunkenness became crucial to the policing of public order, a catch-all charge that was used to remove deviants of all kinds from public places and maintain ‘respectable’ values.  In this paper, I will briefly survey the history of arresting ‘drunks’, using the changing patterns of arrest to illustrate broader shifts in policing over the last two hundred years and particularly, changing ideas about the role of the police in a free society.


Dr Matthew Allen is a Historian and Criminologist whose diverse research is all focussed on the eighteenth and nineteenth-century British world and particularly colonial New South Wales.  He is currently writing a history of alcohol in the Colony which will explore the political symbolism of both celebratory drinking rituals and the deviance of public drunkenness in the period 1788-1856.  Another major project, supported by a University Research Support grant and a BCSS Seed Grant, examines the changing nature of deviance in NSW through a quantitative and qualitative study of magistrates and summary justice in the era of gubernatorial government, c.1810-1850.

Launch seminar recording